Thursday, October 23, 2008

Dreams of a Family, Dreams of a Nation

One of the finest compliments anyone can offer parents is to notice how their child’s behavior reflects the values they instilled. It’s a testament to their vision, hard work and good judgment when their child goes out into the world and shines.
The grace under pressure exemplified by Senator Barack Obama in the face of ever-increasing, over-the-top negative attacks on his character, beliefs and associations reveals his true nature. He emulates the strong family values with which he was raised. Basic decency, good humor, hard work and commitment to making a difference run deep in his upbringing.

This white, middle-class Dunham family from Kansas—Stanley, Madelyn and daughter Stanley Ann—was rooted in Midwestern pragmatism, yet as progressive and open-minded as they come. Striking out for adventure and in pursuit of the American Dream, they moved to the exotic, brand-new state of Hawaii, seeking the promise of a better life.
When Stanley Ann, then an idealistic 18-year-old freshman at the University of Hawaii, brought a brilliant Kenyan student home to meet the parents, it was a real-life version of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” six years before the controversial, Academy Award-winning film hit the screen. The Dunhams accepted their daughter’s unexpected relationship, subsequent marriage and the baby boy born of that union in 1961.
They lovingly embraced and helped raise their bi-racial grandson named Barack Hussein Obama.
Consider the context of the times: According to the 1960 U.S. Census in 1960, there were only 51,000 interracial marriages in the United States, and a Gallup survey of the time found that only 4 percent of Americans approved of them. In fact, such relationships were actually illegal in 16 states until the U.S. Supreme Court finally found those laws unconstitutional in 1967. (Times have changed; today a majority of Americans are unconcerned about interracial relationships.)
Their dignified, unconditionally loving response to the situation—from the moment of his birth until today—matters. Instead of casting out their daughter and her child for violating commonly accepted societal norms, they supported her, helped her, and even stepped in and helped raise her child in a stable home environment.
With a no-nonsense determination to provide for her grandson and his education, Obama’s grandmother redoubled her professional efforts. She worked hard and rose through the ranks from bank secretary to become one of the first female vice-presidents of the Bank of Hawaii.
At a time when the Civil Rights Movement raged on the mainland, this family clearly believed in civil rights, racial and gender equality. They showed it every day by matter-of-factly getting on with life, never allowing differences to define or limit them.
When Martin Luther King delivered his soaring, inspirational, “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28, 1963, Obama was just two years old. The most memorable lines from that speech remain, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
Could have imagined, even in his wildest dreams, that exactly 45 years later, a bi-racial Senator would be nominated to the presidency of the United States?
Could Obama’s dreamy mother have imagined it either?
Sadly, she passed in 1995, far too young and much too soon to witness the impressive accomplishments of her son born of an unlikely union at an unlikely time. I’m sorry she is not here to witness the extraordinary content of her son’s character—the steadfastness, wisdom and good judgment—that that matters so much more today than the color of his skin. Yet her influence, and that of her parents, is felt every day of this campaign.
At this writing, Sen. Obama is winging his way back to the tenth-floor Honolulu apartment where he spent so many years in the care of his beloved grandparents. His 85-year-old grandmother, “Toot,” as he calls her, is gravely ill. His strong Midwestern conscience requires him to honor her contribution to her life, even at the most important moment of his. It’s who he is. It’s how he was raised. It’s a parent’s dream come true.
This common decency in a presidential candidate is the change we need.

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